In a previous issue, we noted that people from the Isle of Lewis have more than 120 words to describe the tawny moorland of the interior of the island. For instance, Mòine dubh is the heavier and darker peats that lie deeper and older into the moor. Lèig-chruthaich is the quivering bog with water trapped beneath it, and an intact surface. These words come from only three villages. You can read about them in Rathad an Isein: The Bird’s Road: A Lewis moorland glossary.
While the example comes from Lewis, the Gaelic language as a whole embodies a close connection between people and place. That intimate awareness of place is reflected in the precision by which the language describes the landscape. For instance, Gaelic has a copious vocabulary to describe different types of promontories such as mountain, hill, peak, cliff, or slope (beinn, sgorran, stob, meall, sgurr, dún, cnoc, stòr, sgurran, sròn, leargann, cruachan just as a few examples).
Even more than just reflected in how the language so precisely identifies parts of the landscape, a visceral connection between land and the human body can be found in poetry. For example, in Ceithir Gaothan Na H-Albann (The Four Winds of Scotland), Deorsa Mac Iain Deorsa (George Campbell Hay) writes of the land of Scotland:
“ . . .mild pleasantness and melody, angry pride and courage, growth and the pouring of the showers is she; breath of my body, nurture of my understanding, my hands, my joints and my soul is she . . .”
“ . . .tl’aths is binneas, ‘ardan, misneach, f’as, is sileadh nam frasan i; anail mo chiurp, ‘arach mo thuigse, mo l’amhan, m’ uilt is m’ anam i. . . .”
The intimacy between humans and earth is reflected again in the comments of the Lewis poet, Iain Mac A’ Ghobhainn (Ian Crichton Smith) in his 1986 essay, Between Sea and Moor: “ When I think of Lewis now, when I try to feel it again in my bones and flesh, what returns to me? . . . The moor and the sea. . . . The sea, monster and creator, has remained with me as a well of fertile symbolism. I think of the many dead . . . a tragedy that breaks the mind. And yet on summer days how innocent it looks, how playful . . . How easily like a human being it is transformed from serenity to anger, from calm to sudden outbursts of rage.”
In another 1986 essay, Real People in a Real Place, Iain Mac A’ Ghobhainn (Ian Crichton Smith), wrote: “For we [the Gael] are born inside a language and see everything from within its parameters: it is not we who make language, it is language that makes us.” (p. 20)
That intimate connection to place was severed by colonialism, and the conversion to English separated it further. While these examples all come from Gaelic speakers and Gaelic communities in the homeland of the language, and while most of our readers are descendants of those Gaels who ended up in colonies, most of whom lost the language long ago, perhaps the language offers a tool for building community and a relationship with the land where we now live.